In this scene, the French artist Andre Castaigne (c. 1861-1929) depicts one of the more notorious (but also one of the most humanizing) events from the reign of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE). The image is set in the year 328 BCE, by which time Alexander had already defeated two Persian King of Kings—Darius III (d. 330 BCE) and Bessus (d. 229 BCE)—and was currently campaigning in the realm of the former Persian vassal, Spitamenes of Sogdiana. By that point, Alexander’s ego was inflating exponentially, and he was touting his successes in battle as validation of his family’s claims to mythological lineage. As his family purported to trace their origins back to figures such as Heracles, Achilles, Thetis and Zeus, Alexander the Great saw no issue in proclaiming himself to be an equal to legendary demigods. When Alexander’s own troops began ascribing more and more godliness to their leader, the king encouraged their beliefs and relished their praise.
The subject of this artwork, Cleitus the Black, was one of the few officers in Alexander’s inner circle who was not fond of flattering his king with exaggerated praise. In particular, Cleitus did not like that little to no credit for Macedonia’s successes was given to Alexander’s father and predecessor, King Philip II (r. 359-336 BCE), whose military reforms and domination of Greece set Alexander on the pathway to greatness. During one particularly heavy night of drinking in 328 BCE, Cleitus the Black could no longer hold back his criticisms. Directly addressing the king, Cleitus reminded Alexander of his father’s many deeds and also made sure to mention the several times that Alexander had to be saved during battle—including one incident where Cleitus personally rescued Alexander during the king’s battle at the Granicus River in 334 BCE. Alexander, who was just as drunk as his critic, did not take the humbling speech with dignity and grace. The Roman biographer, Arrian (c. 90-173+), described the tragic event:
“At this Cleitus could control himself no longer; he began to magnify Philip’s achievements and belittle Alexander’s; his words came pouring out—he was, by now, very drunk indeed—and, among much else he taunted Alexander with the reminder that he had saved his life, when they fought the Persian cavalry on the Granicus. ‘This is the hand,’ he cried, holding it out with a flourish, ‘that saved you, Alexander, on that day.’ Alexander could stand no more drunken abuse from his friend. Angrily he leapt from his seat as if to strike him, but the others held him back…Now nobody could hold him; springing to his feet, he snatched a spear from one of the attendants and struck Cleitus dead” (Anabasis of Alexander, Book 4, section 8).
When Alexander sobered up, he instantly recognized that he had acted improperly, and, according to most accounts, he was filled with serious regret over the killing of his trusted friend. As the story goes, Alexander mourned the death of Cleitus the Black for three days, remaining isolated and not taking food or drink while he came to grips with what he had done.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.
- Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life by Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.